Health care in your hands — or wrist

The Ap­ple Watch is inch­ing to­ward be­com­ing a med­i­cal de­vice

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Liedtke AP Tech­nol­ogy Writer CU­PER­TINO, CALIF. >>

Ap­ple is try­ing to turn its smartwatch from a niche gad­get into a life­line to bet­ter health.

Ap­ple is try­ing to turn its smartwatch from a niche gad­get into a life­line to bet­ter health by slowly evolv­ing it into a med­i­cal de­vice.

In its fourth in­car­na­tion, called Se­ries 4 and due out later this month, the Ap­ple Watch will add fea­tures that al­low it to take high­qual­ity heart read­ings and de­tect falls. It’s part of Ap­ple’s long-in­the-mak­ing strat­egy to give peo­ple a dis­tinct rea­son to buy a wrist gad­get that largely does things smart­phones al­ready do.

Since the Ap­ple Watch launched in April 2015 , most peo­ple haven’t fig­ured out why they need to buy one. Ap­ple doesn’t re­lease sales fig­ures, but es­ti­mates from two an­a­lysts sug­gest the com­pany shipped roughly 18 mil­lion watches in 2017. Ap­ple sold al­most 12 times as many iPhones — 216 mil­lion — last year.

World­wide, about 48 mil­lion smart­watches are ex­pected to be sold this year, com­pared with nearly 1.9 bil­lion phones, ac­cord­ing to the re­search firm Gart­ner.

Ap­ple CEO Tim Cook has long em­pha­sized the watch’s health and fit­ness-track­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The orig­i­nal ver­sion fea­tured a heart-rate sen­sor that fed data into fit­ness and work­out apps so they could sug­gest new goals and of­fer dig­i­tal “re­wards” for fit­ness ac­com­plish­ments.

Two years later, Ap­ple called its watch “the ul­ti­mate de­vice for a healthy life,” em­pha­siz­ing wa­ter re­sis­tance for swim­mers and built-in GPS for track­ing runs or cy­cling work­outs. In Fe­bru­ary, the com­pany an­nounced that the watch would track ski­ing and snow­board­ing runs , in­clud­ing data on speed and ver­ti­cal de­scent.

The lat­est ver­sion, un­veiled Wed­nes­day, is push­ing the health en­ve­lope even fur­ther — in par­tic­u­lar by tak­ing elec­tro­car­dio­grams, or EKGs, a fea­ture given clear­ance by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Ap­ple said. The watch will also mon­i­tor for ir­reg­u­lar heart­beats and can de­tect when the wearer has fallen, the com­pany said.

EKGs are im­por­tant tests of heart health and typ­i­cally re­quire a visit to the doc­tor. The fea­ture gained an on­stage en­dorse­ment from Ivor Ben­jamin, a car­di­ol­o­gist who is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion. He said such real-time data would change the way doc­tors work.

Gart­ner an­a­lyst Tuong Nguyen said the fea­ture could turn smart­watches “from some­thing peo­ple buy for pres­tige into some­thing they buy for more prac­ti­cal rea­sons.”

It could also lead some health in­sur­ance plans to sub­si­dize the cost of an Ap­ple Watch, Nguyen said. That would help de­fray the $400 start­ing price for a de­vice that still re­quires a com­pan­ion iPhone, which can now cost more than $1,000.

Ap­ple’s watch will use new sen­sors on the back and on the watch dial. A new app will say whether each read­ing is nor­mal or shows signs of atrial fib­ril­la­tion, an ir­reg­u­lar heart rate that in­creases the risk of heart com­pli­ca­tions, such as stroke and heart fail­ure.

Ap­ple says the heart data can be shared with doc­tors through a PDF file, though it’s not yet clear how ready doc­tors are to re­ceive a pos­si­ble flood of new EKG data from pa­tients — nor how use­ful they will find the elec­tronic files.

Eric Topol, a car­di­ol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Scripps Re­search Trans­la­tional In­sti­tute, warned that the EKG fea­ture could spur more tests than nec­es­sary, re­sult in un­nec­es­sary pre­scrip­tions for blood thin­ners and over­whelm doc­tors with calls from pa­tients who prob­a­bly don’t need treat­ment.

He said that while the fea­ture will prob­a­bly save some lives and pre­vent strokes with early de­tec­tion of heart trou­ble, “the ra­tio be­tween the ben­e­fits and the costs re­mains a big un­known.”

Ap­ple said the EKG fea­ture will be avail­able to U.S. cus­tomers later this year, an in­di­ca­tion that it may not be ready for launch.

Fall de­tec­tion could also be sig­nif­i­cant, es­pe­cially for el­derly users. The new Ap­ple Watch claims to be able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a trip and a fall — and when the lat­ter oc­curs, it will sug­gest call­ing 911 (or the equiv­a­lent out­side the U.S.). If it re­ceives no re­sponse within a minute, the watch will au­to­mat­i­cally place an emer­gency call and mes­sage friends and fam­ily des­ig­nated as emer­gency con­tacts.

Only cer­tain Ap­ple Watch mod­els sup­port cel­lu­lar calls, but those that don’t can still make emer­gency calls when near a paired iPhone or Wi-Fi ser­vice.

Ap­ple says it mon­i­tored some 2,500 peo­ple — mea­sur­ing how they fell off lad­ders, missed a step while walk­ing or got their legs caught in their pants while get­ting dressed. It used that data to sep­a­rate real falls from other heavy wrist move­ments, such as clap­ping and ham­mer­ing.

The fea­ture is avail­able im­me­di­ately world­wide and will turn on au­to­mat­i­cally for users 65 and over. Younger peo­ple can ac­ti­vate it in the set­tings.

“I can see kids buy­ing one for their par­ents and grand­par­ents,” an­a­lyst Pa­trick Moor­head of Moor In­sights said.

But the Ap­ple Watch still lacks one fea­ture found in ri­val wrist gad­gets: the abil­ity to an­a­lyze sleep qual­ity. Bat­tery life in the new watch re­mains at 18 hours, mean­ing it needs a nightly recharge.


Jeff Wil­liams, Ap­ple’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, speaks about the Ap­ple Watch Se­ries 4 at the Steve Jobs Theater dur­ing an event to an­nounce new Ap­ple prod­ucts on Sept. 12 in Cu­per­tino, Calif.


Mark Hol­loway of Clem­mons, N.C., goes through part of his ex­er­cise rou­tine. Com­pa­nies are of­fer­ing dis­counts on tech prod­ucts to em­ploy­ees to help them stay fit.

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